A Recreational Transit Through the Panama Canal

Post by - Published on 01/31/24 14:00 PM

Brown and Eileen Councill set off on an epic adventure back in 2020. They bought Blown Away, a Leopard 44, in St. Lucia, and have been cruising ever since. Three years later, Blown Away just transited the Panama Canal - a huge accomplishment, and exciting step towards their upcoming pacific crossing. 

Eileen brings us right along through her detailed remembrance of the passage through the locks, which took place just a few weeks ago. 

Plus, follow along with Brown and Eileen as they prepare for a big year ahead, by subscribing to their Youtube channel, and following them on Instagram


BY Eileen Councill

The transit through the Panama Canal was unbelievable and completely different from our first trip as line handlers. The day prior to our scheduled transit date, we received an email informing us of a 36-hour-transit whereas most people have 12-24-hour passages. No one had heard of this before and required extra trips to the grocery store (45 minutes away) to provision because now it wasn’t serving 2-3 meals to 6-7 people, it was 5 meals and they all had to contain meat (canal regulations).

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So, we spent all day Friday and Saturday cooking/preparing food to make life easier for us during the transit. We also had to clean and prepare the boat for 3 people to spend the night. The night prior to our departure, we called the Canal Authority to confirm our 4 am departure and learned we would leave 15 minutes later. The advisor would board at 4:45am. Of course, we didn’t get much sleep. Thankfully, our crew (Marcie and Damon – they own a L45 and were in the slip behind our boat and Christine (husband Travis) in the L44 next to our boat) had a very short walk to board Blown Away at 4:00am.

Travis helped us with lines and Capt. Brown did a brilliant job maneuvering out of the marina in the pitch black. We had spotlights out in the front of the boat to light the way and meandered our way out to the main channel and awaited the arrival of our advisor, Rick. Rick jumped on board at 4:55am and we were off to the first set of locks called the Gatun Locks.

The Gatun Locks have three locks in succession with a total elevation lift of 85 feet. As we motored towards the entry, Rick explained the schedule and raft up orientation, which was to side tie to a 63’ motor yacht, after they were connected to the lock walls. This was a new one for us! We were very happy not to have monkey fists (tennis ball sized knots connected to a line that is thrown onto the boat 4 times to connect the boat to the wall in four places) thrown at us. And, we were thrilled to have Advisor Rick; he was kind, engaging, and on top of everything. Our friends who transited before us did not get good advisors so we were a bit nervous. Rick also said that he would push to get us through in one day. He was hopeful, but we were not so sure it would happen.

By the time we arrived at the base of the locks, the sun had risen and we had a bit of light. We finally saw the motor yacht to which we would side tie and immediately recognized it as a boat we had seen in Beaufort, NC at the Big Rock Tournament. It’s called Shenandoah; that’s not a name you easily forget. Shenandoah pulled into the first lock and tied to the wall. We pulled in and tied up to them. The first connection was a bit awkward with having to move fenders to fit the height and sleek design of this 6.5-million-dollar Spencer Fishing Yacht; thereafter, we were set. As the gates closed behind us and the water started to pour into the chamber, we enjoyed a conversation with the captain and crew of Shenandoah; the captain confirmed that the boat is based in Morehead City and he always shares a slip next to Michael Jordan at the Black Rock Tournament. What a small world.


In the Gatun Locks, the cargo ship is in front and smaller vessels file in behind. Since we were side-tied, we were able to relax as we didn’t have any responsibilities with lines. The crew of the motor yacht did all the work. After rising in the first chamber, the cargo ship moved forward and we encountered a big force from its propwash. Brown and the yacht neutralized this current by throttling forward. After the ship was in the next lock, we detached from Shenandoah and they powered forward to side-tie and then we came forward to connect to them again. We did this three times until we were on the level of Gatun Lake. Our advisor was still pushing to get us through in one day, but the only thing that was granted was for us to move 25NM across the lake to the Gamboa site, an hour from the next set of locks. 

This was a big concession as that site is only reserved for vessels larger than 65’. The advantage to us was that if we did not get through in one day, we would not have to get up super early the next morning to travel the full distance across the lake. As it turned out, we were declined a one-day passage as they didn’t have room for us in the next lock. We were lower priority than the ferries and Shenandoah. 


At around noon, Rick left us on a mooring in the Gamboa area. The moorings are huge...probably 15’ across.  To tie up, I had to jump off the bow of our boat and connect our lines to a 4’ tall thick metal hook. It was SO hot so we begged Rick to let us bow tie, not side tie so we would be bow to the wind and have the breeze running through the boat. He agreed, but only later did we realize that we were foolish.

With adrenaline still running through our veins, we tried to get some cooking done, tidying of the boat, and prep for the next day. Thankfully, as the sun moved closer to the horizon, it got a bit cooler. We would have loved to have gone for a swim or explore by dinghy, but you are forbidden; you are not allowed to leave your boat. You cannot swim, fly a drone, or take your dinghy down.


In the early evening, we sat on the top of the boat, looking for the resident crocodiles and watching the sunset. All of a sudden, the wind shifted and I saw that we were drifting forward and the massive steel hook on the mooring was coming straight for our crossbeam! Thankfully, it was all in slow motion and I was able to push the boat off the mooring before the hook hit anything; this is why boats always side-tie to the mooring. That hook could do a lot of damage if it was not caught in time. To prevent a bad accident while we were sleeping, I took the 8 huge rented ball fenders and tied them across the bow so that if it happened again, they would hopefully stop the hook from hitting the beam or going under the bow. We all went to sleep around 7:30pm, hoping for the best. 

In the middle of the night, I woke up and thought that I had overslept my alarm. How could it be daylight already? I looked at my watch and it said 12:30am. I went up top to see what was happening; a HUGE ship had come into the mooring field to tie up for the night and had all of its flood lights on full blast. They were tying to the mooring next to us to spend the night. The ship’s engines were coughing up massive amounts of black smoke which the wind, thankfully was taking in a different direction. The massive floodlights were attracting thousands of insects of all varieties into and on our boat. It was gross, but there was nothing we could do, but hope they would quickly shut down the stadium lights and let us all get back to sleep.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of fried egg sandwiches. The new advisor, Reggie hopped on the boat at 8:45am and we immediately knew he would be very different compared to Rick. The first thing out of Reggie’s mouth was, “How did you tie up to the mooring and why?” Oops…He was all business and he was not happy. He barked orders despite all of us attempting to introduce ourselves. Thankfully, after a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich, he started to chill out.

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 We had a one-hour motor to the first set of locks called Pedro Miguel and on the way, we finally learned that we were going solo through the locks. The good news was that we would not have the challenge of rafting up and steering two other boats. The bad news was that all hands would be needed on deck and no one to spare. Christine, one of our line handlers is a new sailor and did not know how to tie a bowline and it was necessary to tie it several times for this process. Our two other line handlers, Damon and Marcie, gave her knot tying lessons and I asked Reggie to be available to check her work.

While they were teaching knots, I scrambled to cover our solar panels and side windows to avoid breakage when the monkey fist (the hardened ball of string) was thrown, two on each side, two times. Reggie pushed us hard to get to the locks, but the cargo ship we were paired with was still miles behind us. We arrived on the locks and were told to wait for 30 minutes. The transit is a lot of that – HURRY, HURRY, HURRY, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT. Finally, the gates were opened and we were allowed to enter. The monkey fists came flying in on the starboard side first and thankfully did no damage. Then the two monkey fists came on the port side and they also landed without breaking anything, though the direct hits on the gelcoat probably caused some big spider cracks! The men on the sides of the canal walked alongside the boat, mirroring the positions of the four of us at each corner of the boat. Just before getting to the chamber door, our lines were attached to cleats on the wall and the boat came to rest.


We watched in awe as the large cargo ship entered behind us, steered in by tugs and then connected to 8 mules (electric cars), four on each side that carefully guided the boat along the walls of the chamber. The gates closed and the water started to drain. This time, we were all on duty – all of us monitoring our lines to let out tension as the boat descended 54 feet in the chamber. Our side was the toughest as we had all the tension from the 20+kts of wind gusts pushing us off the wall. Once we were at the bottom, the gates opened, the lines released and we motored 1 NM to arrive at the Miraflores locks. Brown was brilliant at the helm, managing the boat through wild currents and wind gusts. 

We repeated the same process going into our final set of locks, also the most famous, called the Miraflores Locks; these had two locks descending to the level of the Pacific Ocean with the drop in elevation varying from 43-65 feet, depending on the tide. Two monkey fists were thrown from the right, two from the left, and we moved forward until we were almost to the gate. The reason these locks are most famous is because they have a museum and observation gallery which was up to our left. The crowd was waving and cheering us on; thirty years ago, that was ME up in the observation deck waving and cheering as the QE2 went through the locks.

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The cargo ship filed in behind us and we were once again sent to the four corners to release the lines as the water quickly drained out of the chamber. The total time for the water to drain was about 15 minutes. After this first lock, the lines were pulled in and the 4 staff on the wall walked alongside our boat to the next chamber. This was the final chamber and the final lock of the transit. What a marvel that the gates are still the same ones that were built in Pittsburgh and installed over 100 years ago. It was an emotional moment when the gates opened, the crowd cheered, and we were released into the Pacific Ocean! Wow…we did it. But, the celebration would have to wait. There was no time to celebrate. We had work to do!


Hurriedly, we removed and organized the rented fenders and lines as we motored under the famous Bridge of the Americas. We barely had enough time to say thank you and give hugs to our fabulous crew as they departed in the boat taking our rented gear. At the same time, our Advisor Reggie was picked up on the other side of our boat and we were set free. A flood of both relief and exhaustion hit us, but we still needed to get ourselves around to the Panama City anchorage and drop the anchor.

As Brown steered, I organized and stowed our lines and fenders, stripped beds, cleaned the bathroom, swept floors, and tried to get the boat back in normal order. As we entered the anchorage, our Dutch friends, on the boat that we had transited with a month earlier, came out to congratulate and welcome us to the Pacific side. What a cool bookend to our 36-hour adventure.

It all felt like a dream. We could not believe it was over and that we were really in the Pacific Ocean. Soon after the sun set, we collapsed into bed, the movie reel of our transit experience replaying in our minds, as we quickly fell into a deep sleep.


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